I have yet to meet a child who does not want to succeed. We all possess a natural drive for mastery over appropriate developmental tasks. There is a robust pleasure for learning built into our brains. We are driven to create connections between neurons and to master skills under the right conditions. This concept is well supported by neuroscience research. It is up to us as parents and other adults working with children to engage our curiosity about why a child sometimes has trouble in school or with friends and at other times seems to function so smoothly.
All adults working with children have a responsibility to communicate confidence in a child’s capacity to learn. We also have to let children know that we are committed to helping them master whatever challenges stand in their way. This approach will help these children develop resiliency and self esteem. With encouragement and support, a child will learn to tolerate feelings or frustration and discouragement that sometimes come with the learning process.
When we observe our children struggling, we sometimes make assumptions about their motives in the form of character labels. “Lazy,” “manipulative,” “self-centered,” “oppositional,” and “disrespectful” are a few of the common labels used to interpret poor performance. When bright kids struggle it may seem to be the only way to make sense of their difficulties. Learning differences can be confusing to observers because they are invisible, unlike physical disabilities.
A typical question I hear from parents is “Why can he play video games for hours but not focus on his homework?” The truth is, video games activate the release of the neurotransmitter dopamine in the brain that enhances focus. Most homework assignments don’t provide the same kind of stimulation for the brain. It can be very stressful for an intelligent child to engage in a tedious academic task in the classroom or at home.
When we reduce our child’s struggles to character flaws, we are not considering the demands placed on her in different settings and whether or not she has developed the capacities and skills to meet those expectations. Also, our understanding as to why she struggles is going to influence the way she understands her own difficulties. For example, I often ask children with learning differences whey they think they are having problems in school or with homework. It is not uncommon for them to respond, “It’s because I am lazy.” Such a response tells me that adults in these children’s lives have fostered this belief in them. If we are curoius about our child and willing to broaden our understanding of her struggles, we will help her develop a broader understanding of her strengths and challenges. This mindset allows both parent and child to work together to consider many more potential solutions to the problem at hand.
Finally, character labels limit our capacity to help. What are we left to do if we determine that our child is lazy? This mindset increases the likelihood that we will become more frustrated and possibly punitive about getting your expectations met. In response, our child may become frustrated, angry and therefore resistant to doing what is asked. A narrow perspective on our part sets up a negative dynamic with our child.
(Peter Murphy, Ph.D. To Be Continued)